An Artist’s Date with Adela Breton

Celebrating Easter Sunday with a walk around Bristol in the sunshine. I usually travel everywhere by bike so today I decided to slow down and just walk. I stopped and looked at things a little more closely than usual. The bees in the flowers. The ripples on the water from boats passing. Signs on buildings I’ve never seen before. Dogs walking their people! It was a quiet Sunday but I still managed to bump into a familiar face and we walked together. We walked and talked along the docks and parted as we reached the centre of town. I made my way to Bristol Museum to see their latest exhibition.

Adela Breton: Ancient Mexico in Colour

In the late 1800’s, archeological artist and adventurer, Adela Breton, travelled around Mexico with her guide Pablo Solorio making copies of the wall paintings in temples in Chichén Itzá, Teotihuacan and Acancéh. She painted the copies with watercolours which still hold their vibrancy today as the original wall paintings begin to fade over time. 

"Adela Breton always carried a sketchbook with her, giving a 'diary' of her travels. This one has sketches of landscapes, flowers and ruins of Mexico and Canada. It includes sketches made on her climb up the volcano of Iztaccihuatl, in snow and across glaciers, up to 15,000 feet above sea level - Adela Breton also carried a notebook at all times, and made notes of lectures, objects she saw in museums, and books she read." Bristol Museum

I was especially drawn to Adela’s sketchbooks of the places she visited on her travels. I have kept sketchbooks for many years and am mostly inspired to draw when I’m travelling and sitting in cafes. In the last couple of years I've been sketching antique netsuke from museums to make a collection of mini woodblock prints. Today after walking in the sunshine and looking through the sketchbooks of Adela Breton, I was eager to sit down, open my own sketchbook and take in my surroundings. The cafe where I was having lunch was the perfect spot. 

When I finished my lunch and my sketch, I walked home remembering the paragraph from Julia Cameron’s book Walking in this World.

“Walking and talking humanize my life, draw it to an ancient and comforting scale. We live as we move, a step at a time, and there is something in gentle walking that reminds me of how I must live if I am to savour this life that I have been given.” Julia Cameron
Clockwise from top left: Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Adela Breton's notebook of the Maya calendar. All three from Bristol Museum. A sketch I made today at Pinkman's Bakery, Bristol. 

Clockwise from top left: Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Landscape from Adela Breton's sketchbook. Adela Breton's notebook of the Maya calendar. All three from Bristol Museum. A sketch I made today at Pinkman's Bakery, Bristol. 

Netsuke - Bristol Museum Sketches

Twenty Netsuke in a Box

I have two hours booked with Kate Newnham to draw netsuke this morning at Bristol Museum. Kate has brought a box of netsuke into the office. A couple of weeks ago I sent Kate a list of netsuke that I would be interested in drawing from Bristol Museum's collection. This included a recumbent Buddhist lion, a monkey with scrolled ears and a stubby tail, a recumbent stag, a crouching tiger, a lion and cub, two tortoises, three monkeys clambering over a giant peach, a rat in a rice-bag, a rat with brass eyes and a monkey wearing a short gown. I pause for a moment and wonder how many more animals I would need to fill Noahs Ark. Inside this box are twenty different netsuke animals cushioned in their own tiny boxes.

Rabbit with Red Eyes

Kate has found almost all of the netsuke I chose from the collection and brought another netsuke I might be interested in. It's a rabbit with red piercing eyes and a smooth pale ivory body. I'm reminded of Edmund De Waal's Hare with The Amber Eyes and then my thoughts move to a more clinical laboratory scene of red eyed white mice ready for dissection. This thought is heightened by the pair of white gloves lying next to the box. I think about Edmund De Waal's collection and the many people who have held his netsuke in their hands and the conversations they have sparked and the memories held in these tiny objects. I wonder if the netsuke being kept in a museum over time might lose their memories as they are kept in a box and only occasionally handled with gloves. Will these conversations eventually come to a end?

Four Views of Rat with Brass Eyes Crouched over a Chestnut

Kate puts on the gloves and asks me which one I would like to draw first. I look back into the box of netsuke. It's difficult to make a choice as they are all so beautiful. After closer inspection I feel drawn to the Rat with brass eyes crouched over a chestnut.


I start drawing a side view of the rat with half of its face turned towards me. One brass eye stares back at me from its carved coat of grey. I pick up the rat. These gloves keep our connection at a distance. It's difficult to handle such a small object with gloves and my hands feel like paws - although I have seen a cat handle a small mouse with much more finesse. I carefully hold the rat in one hand while drawing with the other. What is lovely, is the space and silence to view the detail in this rat. To have the time to be able to see the rat from all angles. Every single part of the rat is carved beautifully - its tiny claws clasping the chestnut. I make two more drawings.

You look at the etymology of tact and all you have there in that beautiful word is the feeling of holding something, of touching something. That’s the root of tact - so what I want to talk about is touching silence. Touching the experience of being with someone and finding a silence in connection with them because that is what tact is.
— Edmund de Waal On Tact

Five Views of Rabbit with Red Eyes

I move on to the rabbit and make five drawings. Each from a different view as I did with the rat. While drawing each view I think about Hokusai's Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji. He was given this project so that they may help those who wanted to learn landscape design.

For example, its shape seen from Shichirigahama, or in the distance, from Tsukudajima, etc... - they may well be more than a hundred, and are not restricted to thirty-six designs.
— Hokusai - Mountains and Water, Flowers and Birds by Matthi Forrer.

It would be possible to draw a hundred views of these netsuke as the detail is so fine and there is always something new to discover. Someone learning the anatomy of Japanese netsuke might be thrilled by this concept!


One View of Monkey Wearing Short Gown

Kate puts the rabbit back in the box. I scan the box of netsuke and this time I'm immediately drawn to a tiny monkey with a melancholic expression. A downward gaze, not shouting for attention - unlike the piercing red eyes of the rabbit and the bright brass eyes of the rat. This monkey is pensive, self contained and quiet. I'm almost unsure whether to disturb it but I'm drawn to this netsuke so Kate gently lifts it from the box. I don't pick it up. It seems quite happy sitting in the centre of this big sheet of paper and I start to draw. Two hours have passed and I don't have any more time to draw from a different view and this feels right. I have given this monkey lots of space and make one small drawing right in the centre of the page.

Solitude matters and that for some people it is the air that they breathe. And in fact, we have known for centuries about the transcendent power of solitude. It’s only recently that we’ve strangely begun to forget it. If you look at most of the world’s major religions, you will find seekers — Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad — seekers who are going off by themselves alone to the wilderness, where they then have profound epiphanies and revelations that they then bring back to the rest of the community. So, no wilderness, no revelations.
— Susan Cain - The Power of Introverts - TED TALK

Thank you Kate and Bristol Museum for giving me your time and space to draw the netsuke.

Netsuke at the Bristol Museum

I popped into The Bristol Museum this week to find out about their netsuke collection. So lovely to be greeted by printmaker Melanie Wickham in the main reception. She pointed me in the right direction for their online collections, the Eastern Arts Gallery and contact details for Kate Newnham (Curator of Eastern Art and Culture at Bristol’s Museums, Galleries and Archives). I headed upstairs to the second floor to check out their tiny collection of Japanese netsuke in the Eastern Arts Gallery.

Eastern Art Gallery

The gallery is abundant with Chinese ceramics from the Ming, Tang and Song dynasty. A small group of Japanese netsuke labelled 'Miniature zodiac animals from Japan' sit in a Dragon themed glass cabinet. A crouching tiger, a monkey eating some fruit, a horse lying on its side curled up like a cat, a hare wearing a dress holding onto a cylindrical object and a coiled up sea creature. I have no pencil on me so I take a quick photo to remind me what is here. Taking a photograph is useful and there are positives to drawing from a photograph especially when the lens magnifies the detail. What is fascinating about seeing the real thing, is the intricately carved detail which flows around the entire netsuke. The detail in these tiny objects is breath taking and when I stop for a couple of hours to draw these netsuke, I take the time to appreciate what is in front of me, allowing more of an intimate connection with these beautiful works of art.


Booking a Netsuke Drawing Session

I head back to my studio and check out The Bristol Museum website. I find a list of 240 netsuke without images. All of these netsuke are in storage so I send an email to Kate Newnham to find out more about their netsuke collection with a view to drawing some of the netsuke animals from their online list.

A few days later I received an email back from Kate who has booked me in for a netsuke drawing session later on this month.

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.
— Ruskin from Alain de Botton's - The Art of Travel.